Across the gym, a group of blue and red clad Quakers’ fans chanted “I believe that we just won” as Penn’s players emerged from the visitors locker room with their hands lifted in the air.
It had been a long time since a visiting team walked out of Lavietes Pavilion victorious—27 games, in fact. But on Saturday night, the Quakers became the first team since Cornell on Feb. 19, 2010 to best the Crimson on its home court, bringing an end to the nation’s second-longest current home winning streak.
For the Crimson, the timing could not have been much worse. Not only did the loss come on Andrew Van Nest, Keith Wright, and Oliver McNally’s senior night, it also brought Penn (17-11, 9-2 Ivy) and Harvard (24-4, 10-2) even in the loss column heading into the final weekend of Ivy League play.
While a win on Saturday night would have guaranteed the Crimson at least a share of the Ancient Eight crown, Harvard now finds itself in a dead heat for the conference title and the Ivy League’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
With road games at Columbia and Cornell this coming weekend, Harvard still controls its own destiny. A pair of victories guarantees the Crimson at least a share of the Ivy title. But Harvard, which entered conference play as the Ivy League’s clear favorite, isn’t looking to settle for a piece of the title, like it did last season. If the Crimson is to punch its ticket to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1946, it might just have to meet Zack Rosen and the Quakers again.
If both teams emerge from the rest of Ivy League play unscathed—and that’s a big if—Harvard would share the conference title with Penn, and the two teams would meet on a neutral court for a one-game playoff to determine the recipient of the conference’s automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
“I don’t like going out losing against somebody,” Curry said. “If we have a playoff with [Penn] that would be great, but if not, whatever happens, I’m fine with.”
Another matchup with the Quakers is far from a guarantee. Both squads are slated to close out the season with a number of difficult matchups. On Friday, the Crimson travels to 14-14 Columbia, which has gone 9-5 at its home Levien Gymnasium, and on Saturday Harvard faces 11-16 Cornell. Penn has the more difficult road ahead, as the Quakers host 8-21 Brown and 19-7 Yale and visit 16-11 Princeton.
“There’s a lot more to be played, a lot that’s going to play out before everything is over,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “Certainly we have to go on the road and do our share of it.”
With the clock winding down, Amaker opted to have two freshmen on the court and the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year Keith Wright on the bench.
After scoring nine points and pulling down five rebounds in 27 minutes of play, Wright checked out of the game for good with the Crimson up by three and 3:46 remaining. The co-captain was replaced by rookie point guard Corbin Miller, who joined classmate Wes Saunders, junior Kyle Casey, McNally and Curry on the floor.
“They were playing well for us, and we wanted to go smaller,” Amaker said of his decision to stick with Miller and Saunders down the stretch. “We needed ball handlers. Wes was having, obviously, a tremendous game.… We needed defense on the perimeter with Wes and certainly with Corbin.”
The rookies struggled down the stretch, as Saunders committed a costly turnover with 2:58 to go and Miller missed a good look at the basket from deep with the Crimson down one with 10 seconds to play.
“That’s Coach’s decision,” Wright said of Amaker’s choice to leave him on the bench in the game’s final minutes. “I [was] just cheering on my teammates, being a captain and a leader on the team.”